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A look at notable recent book releases

Nero fiddles while Raleigh burns: New poetry and fiction by North Carolina authors 

Taken together, two recent books from the Triangle capture poetry at extremes—naturalistic and wrought, feminine and masculine, brimming with airy light and plunging into opaque depths.

THE FLYING DAYS (Carolina Wren Press, May 8) by Durham retiree Coyla Barry is part of the local press' Laureate Series, where manuscripts are selected by N.C. Poets Laureate. The book soars in on accolades from Joseph Bathanti and Kathryn Stripling Byer.

Barry writes free verse, scantily tethered to classical meter or form, that generates its own tidy structures. With intuitively enjambed lines that unspool in neat-edged (or, sometimes, gently fragmented) ranks, the poems here are vividly figurative, tastefully lyrical and accessibly, if undemonstratively, emotional. Barry's unpretentious vocabulary conveys an elevated sense of the world without being self-consciously "high." Rather, it's close to the ground, where "Mint spreads in a blue fire."

Beyond nature, the poems are concerned with old age and the passing stages of family life—but not in a very dolorous or decorous way. Barry's even, polished tone is spiked with bracing outbursts of rhythmic brio. "Thrasher" positively careens: "Beady-eyed thug, he hustled duff / and thicket, scratching up / a living with a beaky bayonet / other creatures flee from."

Rather than woolgathering, the author persuasively insists on the urgency of the senses, as manifested in "Wizened peppers for instance—those bombs / in the beans and rice—or a slug of single malt / taken straight." Likewise, Barry's encounters with the natural world can be startlingly sensual: "The pond skin tucks here / and there with the delicate O / of his lips. He mouths / the pollen film and sultry air[.]" Would you guess that's about a bluegill?

Of course, in such an abundant collection, not all of the poems rise to such an ecstatic tenor. And reading too much about nature at once always makes me want to drop the book and go outside. But The Flying Days is great for quick plunges into the clear, cool pools of its language. Opening to any page, you'll at least find a stray lyric that sweetly chimes in your mind or a pumping measure that pounds in your throat.

The book is most inspiring for its undimmed force of life and clarity of perception. It closes with "Birthday at Seventy," where "It's almost midnight, and, while the drinks flow, / the party heats up." At a life stage when many poets have retreated into wistful obscurity, Barry still writes with the quickening sizzle of new beginnings.

If Flying is a balmy summer-day book, ALLOY (David Robert Books, Feb. 6) is for somber, sweltering summer nights. The Raleigh-based poet Larry Johnson teaches at Wake Tech and holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Arkansas. He brings a virile pressure, a groaning heft, to the historical poem—indeed, this is a book of verse that comes with annotations in the back.

click to enlarge 6.4_Recent-Books_Alloy.jpg

In 2010's Veins, Johnson offered odes to writers such as Keats and Lorca alongside richly imagined tableaux of the ancient world. Alloy picks up in the latter mode with a jet-black sonnet (Johnson's favored form), hard and gleaming as hewn onyx, in the voice of a soldier left behind by Alexander the Great, who we glimpse as he goes crunching away down "scaly, ocher slopes."

The poem opens in medias res ("And then he left us—exhausted, the only ones / Abandoned to these scabrous desert heights") and ends with us peering through a slot at the "crag-bound stars." The deep texturing and high-contrast coloring of the language render a historical scene that could have felt remote as tactile, present, believable—we're practically there. It's an auspicious beginning.

Over the next 87 pages, we go on to encounter Nero, Marcus Aurelius and other Roman emperors, with cameos from French composer Erik Satie (cane-dueling a real-life critic of his day, one who was married to the novelist Colette) and a Japanese writer most famous for ritually disemboweling himself during a failed coup attempt, in a poem called—titular spoiler alert—"Yukio Mishima Returns as Godzilla."

Johnson favors scarred, rugged language, dense with eldritch compound words ("mooncold," "moonflensed") and phlegm-stuffed archaic terms ("chthonic," "chelation"). He can be gleefully lurid, even rude, in the sneering manner of Catullus. "Otho at Brixellum" shows us a "pimply ass" and closes with the words "he vomits swill." Another poem, "May 26," begins with a memorable scene of the poet laying his head on a toilet seat where "a year ago tonight your beautiful ass rested[.]"

Johnson's take on the sonnet is strewn, here and there, with slightly extended lines among the pentameter, and with tersely falling metrical feet among the rising iambs—which gives it an apt whiff of the dactylic hexameter of ancient epics, a grand and warlike thrum.

The monumental strength of Johnson's prosody and the heavy incense of his language makes his writing best suited to chiseled, robust forms. He can falter when he ventures afield: A long piece in the middle of the book bogs down; the emotional erotic poem "Beloved Body" gets a little cringe-y; there is, regrettably, a haiku.

It's always a relief when he returns to crepuscular sonnets and heroic couplets, where he confidently conjures the strangely heightened visions, the larger-than-life scenes, the seductive brutality of ancient history. Alloy shines when it sets the sultry, brazier-lit chambers of the known against all the encroachingly vast, enchanted, moonhard darkness of antiquity.

Still, if the mere word "poetry" makes you slide sideways off your chair in a narcoleptic drowse, a few fiction titles provide more effortless laughs, thrills and chills. Pittsboro resident and former UNC-Chapel Hill creative writing faculty member Ruth Moose's high-spirited, award-winning DOING IT AT THE DIXIE DEW (Minotaur Books, May 6) mingles chicken-fried charm with a tasty murder mystery. In the fictional N.C. town of—wait for it—"Littleboro," Beth McKenzie unravels murders that threaten the idyll of downhome life as well as her embryonic bed & breakfast business.

References to the News & Observer and WUNC locate Littleboro somewhere near Raleigh, which is explicitly the hellish backdrop for THE BOOK OF BART (Curiosity Quills Press, May 22), the debut e-book (also available in paperback) from Ryan Hill. A disgraced demon and an angel team up to find a Dan Brown-sounding relic called "the Shard of Gabriel." In typical YA fashion, the writing doesn't have much of a discernible style but does a clean job of conveying fleet action and dialogue. Hill's infernal release party is on May 31 at So & So Books.

Seasoned Southern humorist George Singleton returns with BETWEEN WRECKS (Dzanc Books, May 6), where down-at-the-heels, often crotchety characters make big plans that don't pan out. The humor is mostly ambient and aimed at this crazy modern America of ours; Singleton tells garrulous stories with an air of amusement but stops short of Sedaris-sharp barbs.

Durham's Eryk Pruitt offers DIRTBAGS (Immortal Ink Publishing, April 5), a Southern Gothic crime novel where three people involved in a love triangle find themselves embroiled in a cynical, sensational tale of murder and revenge. The prose feels rather flat to gin up a proper noir mood, but the ripped-from-the-headlines-style plot is effective enough in its knife twists and turns.

Pruitt is organizing and participating in the first "Noir at the Bar" group event for local crime writers at 106 Main in Durham on June 19. By the way, his book's epigraph reads "For Lana / I love you to death"—an ominous thing to read from a crime novelist. Lana, if you can read this, drop us a line and let us know you're okay?

This article appeared in print with the headline "Recent books"

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